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Firefighters from across US gather to pay respects

Thousands of firefighters stood in the middle of Centre Street early Thursday morning, idly chatting or glancing at cellphones. Then, a Boston fire official in a neon vest strode up.

“Line up,” he said briskly. “Nice, straight line.”

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Almost instantly, men and women in navy uniforms and others in bunker gear filed in an orderly row that stretched nearly a mile from the West Roxbury funeral home that had held Michael Kennedy’s body to Holy Name Church. There, where Kennedy’s funeral Mass would be said later in morning, the single file turned into a thick line of firefighters, at least 10 people deep.

When Kennedy’s casket passed by on Engine 33, the firefighters stood straight, eyes forward, as they saluted him. Kennedy’s family and friends, who followed the truck in limousines, stared at the firefighters in awe.

All that effort was for them, said Boston Fire Lieutenant Ralph Dowling, who for 20 years has been part of a core of officials who organize the pageantry surrounding firefighters’ funerals.

“It’s for them to see that their loved one didn’t die in vain,” Dowling said. “That there is a country, a nation of brother firefighters and sister firefighters that came out for them. We want to make sure the ceremony is . . . something they never forget.”

Boston officials immediately knew that thousands of firefighters from around the country would want to pay respects to Kennedy and Lieutenant Edward Walsh, who died March 26 fighting a fire in a Back Bay apartment building.

Officials used social media, e-mails, and phone calls to spread the word about where to organize. Firefighters were told to gather at the Bayside Expo Center in Dorchester, where dozens of buses and city trolleys would take them to the church.

By 8 a.m., most had arrived at Centre Street, where business owners showed support by unfurling enormous American flags over their shops.

The funeral would not start for three hours, but it would take time to organize the firefighters and give clear directions to the dozens of bagpipers.

“This is such an impressive sight,’’ said Melissa Murphy, 40, who stood in front of Holy Name’s parish center with her 3-year-old son, Owen. He had come to the see the firetrucks but seemed more absorbed in collecting rocks from the sidewalk.

“I told him there was a celebration for a firefighter who got hurt,’’ Murphy said. “I don’t think he understands.”

Waiting for the procession, firefighters sipped coffee and ate Munchkins donated by Dunkin’ Donuts.

Leo Gauthier, a retired Worcester firefighter who helped hand out the refreshments, stopped to greet a firefighter he knew.

As the firefighter raised his arms to take a picture, Gauthier tickled him under his arms, sparking laughter. The men then looked at each other and hugged tightly.

It was a strange way to release tension, Gauthier acknowledged, but firefighters often say more with gestures than with words.

“No firefighter says, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ ” he said. “We just don't say that. Firefighters shake hands or give hugs.”

Periodically, Dowling gave orders through a microphone.

“Can I have outside departments proceed on Centre Street?” he boomed. “I need all Boston Fire Department members in front of the church.’

Those firefighters would greet Kennedy’s family when they arrived at Holy Name and would see them off when the funeral ended.

Children of firefighters killed in the line of duty have approached Dowling years later to tell him how much the funeral meant to them, he said.

They remember “just the enormity of the crowds, the flags, the pageantry,” he said. “The sheer number of people who showed up for their dad.”

The procession for Kennedy unfolded in the same way another one had the day before in Watertown, where Walsh’s funeral Mass was held.

A white-gloved salute greeted members of Engine 33 and Ladder 15, where Walsh and Kennedy were stationed, as they neared the church.

Dignitaries, including Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and Governor Deval Patrick attended the service. Elaborately dressed bagpipers played “Minstrel Boy.”

“It’s one we usually play,’’ said Jim Leahy, a retired Boston police officer and bagpiper with the Greater Boston Firefighters Pipes and Drums. “It’s an old Irish tune about a fallen soldier.”

He paused and looked up at the sky.

“It doesn’t get any easier,’’ Leahy said.

After the funeral, some firefighters sought comfort at Porter Café, a pub on Centre Street.

“He used to come in here, that kid,’’ said the firefighter, who identified himself only by his first name, Jeff. “I’d see him out here on weekends. He was with a crowd of kids. You don’t come across people like him much.”

His eyes welled and he choked up.

“I spent 41 years on the force. I love those kids,’’ he said, talking about Kennedy and other young firefighters. “I loved him.”

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeMCramer. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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